Winning chemistry has made fun-loving Badgers unbeatable
MADISON, Wis. — Sam Dekker stood for an interview with a local television station last week, when the legs of teammate Nigel Hayes suddenly appeared in the background. Hayes, the effervescent freshman, was performing handstands in an attempt to photobomb the shot and distract Dekker.
Hayes’ maneuvering was subtle enough that his shoe tops made the final cut when the interview ran on TV. And Dekker, as he and teammates have done for most of this season, had no choice but to laugh.
It was only one moment among several that have emerged in recent months, but it provided yet another example of why this Wisconsin basketball team is having so much success. If you’re looking for a team that has more fun than the Badgers on and off the court, you’d be hard pressed to find it.
Winning certainly helps, but players and coaches acknowledged the team’s chemistry and overall looseness has greatly contributed to the first 16-0 start in program history.
"We’re just laughing and goofing around, but then we’re getting down to business when it needs to be done," Dekker said. "You don’t always have to be serious 100 percent of the time. Some people take things way too seriously. You can’t really live life like that. You’ve got to be able to relax a little bit and kick your feet up and let your hair down and have some fun with your teammates and people around you. When you can balance that really well, I think you can be a better team and be a better person."
Part of the entertainment in watching this year’s team is the varying personalities that have seamlessly meshed to create an unstoppable on-court product to this point. Dekker, a sophomore, has charisma and a skillset rivaled by few in the Big Ten. He leads the Badgers in scoring (14.3 points) and rebounding (6.3). But he also isn’t afraid to have fun, and that characteristic rubs off on teammates.
Take, for example, a moment late in Wisconsin’s 95-70 drubbing of No. 23 Illinois on Wednesday night when the Kohl Center big screen showed former Badgers walk-on Dan Fahey sitting in the crowd. Fahey, who played sparingly in his career, became known for his role on the "Bench Mob," when he would hold the entire team back on the bench with a wide-eyed look on his face following an impressive dunk from one of his teammates.
Dekker, in turn, mimicked Fahey’s mannerisms on the bench for the big screen, drawing a chorus of laughter from fans in attendance.
Badgers coach Bo Ryan clearly enjoys coaching this particular group, and one of the reasons is the team’s unselfishness and willingness to play for each other, which stems from genuine friendships that have developed. Many of the players live in adjacent apartments, so they can spend time together away from the court.
"I know a lot of brothers and sisters in a family," Ryan said. "People say the family gets along really well. There are things that they do that shows that they truly have that belief that if I help you, you’ll help me and in the long run we can all be better off for it. So yes, it is that camaraderie. It is that sense of we know we might have limitations, we know we might not be this, we might not be that. But we are more concerned with what we are and what we can do.
"I think that is the answer to, ‘Do they get along?’ They enjoy playing with one another. Yeah. I think it’s because they realize there’s strength in numbers and doing things together can produce better results."
The results thus far have been tremendous. Wisconsin not only has one of the best defenses in the Big Ten (allowing 61.1 points per game), but the Badgers also are scoring at a rate unmatched in the Ryan era. They are averaging 76.4 points per game, which is 5.3 points more than any Ryan-coached UW team has averaged in 13 seasons. Four different players are averaging in double figures, and seven of the top eight players in the rotation are 3-point threats.
Badgers point guard Traevon Jackson and associate head coach Greg Gard said the team’s success was based, in part, on playing in a five-game Canadian exhibition tour back in August. That opportunity allowed veteran players — specifically Dekker, Duje Dukan and Frank Kaminsky — to establish more defined roles before the official season began. It also provided extra practice time and helped the team’s six freshmen learn the pace necessary to excel in Ryan’s system.
Gard also credited Badgers guard Josh Gasser for bringing the team together in a way that was missing last season when he sustained a season-ending ACL injury.
"I don’t think you can start this whole conversation in terms of chemistry without putting Josh’s return at the top of the list," Gard said. "To have him come back and the leadership that he brings, the confidence he brings, the toughness he brings, the experience he can talk about. He’s not a guy that talks a lot. But a lot like Alando (Tucker) wasn’t like that either. But when he did talk, you could hear a pin drop. I think Josh obviously has that type of respect from his teammates and he’s a proven player."
Gasser, a redshirt junior, said his method was to treat all underclassmen the same as any other player.
"Younger players sometimes don’t feel like they can speak up as much," Gasser said. "We try and include everyone. I’m a senior here, and I still talk to the freshmen like they came in with me. They’re like my roommates. So we’re all just really close. I feel comfortable with each player on this team. I feel like I can sit down and talk to them whenever I need to. That’s what you want in a team is 16, 17 guys who all like each other, who get along, who want to play for each other. That’s what we have right now.
"Usually when freshmen come in and speak their mind, upperclassmen can sometimes be like, ‘Shut up.’ We’re just trying to include everyone in."
That approach is already paying off with Hayes and fellow freshman Bronson Koenig playing important minutes. Hayes has won two consecutive Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards, and Koenig continues to improve. Koenig admitted he spoke up at halftime of Wisconsin’s game against Iowa on Sunday, telling teammates to play more physical, draw contact and earn free throws. The Badgers obliged, turning a 35-24 halftime deficit into a 75-71 victory.
As goofy as this team can be at times, it also has demonstrated it shows up when it matters most. And so far, the combination has been unbeatable.
"Winning obviously helps," Dekker said. "But even in the offseason, we were a very close team. We didn’t have individual cliques. We were always together. Everyone gets along in their own way. We just have a bunch of unique personalities on this team that really complement each other in a good way.
"When you have a mix of good personalities and winning and just a good team atmosphere in the locker room, you’re going to get along really well with the guys around you."
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